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Even in a pandemic, there are two things you can always count on at the end of a calendar year: retrospectives and predictions. As you get ready to put your feet up, put on your stretchy pants, and hopefully, get just the right amount of family time this holiday season, join me as I dust off my crystal ball and share this hot take on my enrollment and marketing predictions for 2022—informed by Niche’s very own research of course!
Here are my top three.
Prediction #1: Traditional public schools and districts will invest more in marketing.
As I shared in a recent podcast episode, this first one is less of a prediction and more of a hope, but when we look back on 2022 a year from now, I’m hopeful that traditional public schools and districts will have made marketing to prospective families more of a priority in the 2022-23 school year. In addition to major gains for private schools, increased interest in charter schools and homeschooling during the pandemic have been well-documented, and we saw all of those trends reflected in our 2021 Parent Surveys. Our surveys showed that consideration for traditional public schools is declining, on top of the 1.1 million students which public schools lost during the 2020-21 school year.
The takeaway is clear: we’re living in a time when, in many cases, traditional public schools have to think about actively recruiting students. Branding, investing in your digital presence, and having an intentional focus on retaining families aren’t just for private schools anymore. With more families taking advantage of the ability to choose the educational environment for their children, traditional public schools will need to bring their external marketing efforts in line with their peers from other K-12 segments.
In addition to helping to boost student recruitment and retention, an added bonus is that more intentional and strategic marketing can help public schools and districts with employee recruitment, which is a huge challenge right now.
In these examples from Falls Church City Public Schools, you can see how a public school district is using calls-to-action on their Niche Profile to highlight everything from enrollment to employment opportunities and its commitment to sustainability.
Now is the time for traditional public schools to begin telling richer stories about the impact they’re making in their communities and the opportunities they offer to students and employees alike.
Prediction #2: Schools with full enrollment will take marketing essentials off the backburner.
As a former in-house independent school marketer, I can say that a few years ago the concept of full enrollment was like chasing a unicorn for all but a few, very elite, schools. Fast forward to a global pandemic and many schools, especially private schools, were suddenly faced with more demand than they could handle. And, in light of the trends I mentioned in the previous section, that hasn’t changed. Recent Niche data also bears this out. In our PK-12 State of Enrollment and Marketing Survey, 59% of schools reported that inquiries had increased last year and 60% said that applications increased. In addition, more than half of responding schools achieved their enrollment goals in time for the June 1 contract binding date enforced by many private schools.
Does this time of plenty mean that marketers and admissions professionals in schools with full enrollment can go on sabbatical in the Caribbean? Alas, no. What full enrollment buys you is another elusive unicorn in the school marketing world—time. Now is actually a great time to finally focus on the things that you probably knew you needed to do, but just couldn’t get to in the normal cycle of fire-fighting that comes with recruiting a high number of new students every year. And, you know, completely reimagining your admissions and communications processes during an ongoing crisis.
Here is a look at some essential items school marketers, communicators, and admissions professionals can focus (and collaborate) on.
Gather Proof Points and Formalize Your Process
Regardless of where you stand with enrollment, having a bank of testimonials from members of your community and tracking endorsements from third parties are important for both recruitment and retention. Now is the time to formalize and document that process so you can come back to it every year and keep that content current.
This example from Fairfax Christian School shows how some schools are leaning into proof points like third-party endorsements on social media. Your social channels are also great places to showcase video and text testimonials from parents, students, employees, and alumni.
Double-Check Your Tech Stack
When you’re caught up in the day-to-day, there is very little time to stop and evaluate the systems you’re using. We always seem to find time to identify gaps in what we need, but what about tools that are no longer serving us well, or at all? Before you allow another auto-renewal to slip through, take the time to do an audit of the tools you’re using for things like email, social media management, CRM, project management, or media monitoring to determine what’s working, what’s not, and where there might be opportunities for consolidation or expansion.
Activate Your Branding Filter
This is a big one. When it’s done well, intensive branding work can require a tremendous amount of effort and time from key stakeholders. Once you have a new logo, visual identity, and messaging guidelines in place it can be tempting to order some new swag and call it a day. But…the “end” of a branding project is actually when the real work begins. Teachers, staff, and volunteers need to be trained and you need to begin the work of operationalizing the brand. That means more than managing logo use. When branding is effectively incorporated into the way a school functions, it informs everything from job descriptions and hiring practices to a school’s approach to adding new courses, developing policy, and processes. That’s the real work and it requires time and collaboration across a school’s leadership team.
Retention, Retention, Retention
This one has always been important of course, but the breathing room you get from full enrollment can allow you to turn your attention to crafting meaningful strategies to retain the new families that have joined your school during the pandemic—and some veteran parents too. One of the takeaways from our 2021 Parent Survey was that the consideration window for families is shrinking, especially for parents of high-school-aged students. More than 40% of families in the high school age group started looking for new schools six months or less before their student(s) enrolled, meaning you may have current families who wait as late as January or February to look elsewhere.
Current families should never be taken for granted, and in some cases, they need to be ”wooed” just as intentionally and prospective families. A retention calendar can help you stay organized as you develop touchpoints to keep your current families engaged beyond the day-to-day. If your school serves multiple age groups, having special messaging and events to “market” the next stage to families at key transition points is a good practice, and many schools have cross-disciplinary retention committees that meet regularly to strategize, troubleshoot, and review families who are “at risk.” Effective retention strategy requires an “all hands on deck” approach, so involvement from academic leadership is a must.
Prediction #3: Schools across segments will double down on digital communications.
Even though a recent survey showed that schools are still investing in traditional marketing channels like brochures, print ads, and direct mail, their priorities are shifting. More than half of schools surveyed said that their spending on digital marketing increased last year and these days your audiences demand it. We often talk about meeting families where they are—and that’s online. This is especially true for Millennial parents, which on an increasing basis, represent your target audience.
Here is a bit of evidence:
- Last year, more than 27 million students and families used the Niche platform to search for and compare schools
- A February 2019 survey revealed that 48% of U.S. adults aged 18 to 29 years were online “almost constantly” and that most of Millennials’ online minutes were spent on mobile devices. (Statista)
- Millennials had the highest social media usage reach among adults in the United States with Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram being the most popular social networks among U.S. Millennials. (Statista)
- School rankings/online reviews were important to families searching for preschools (42%), elementary schools (57%), middle schools (57%), and high schools (46%) going into the fall of 2021.
While a number of schools surveyed shared plans to invest more in digital display advertising, paid search, and paid social, in light of recent and upcoming data privacy changes from Apple and Google schools will also need to maintain their focus on owned channels like websites and email. Remember The Great Facebook Outage of the fall of 2021? That’s another argument for the importance of maintaining and optimizing owned platforms. To that end, schools will need to focus on intuitive, mobile-first websites and email design. Content should be informational, yet scannable, and both your website and email campaigns should be driven by platforms that are easy to use, flexible, and provide critical analytics for ongoing optimization, measurement, and audience analysis, all of which will become harder to acquire from third parties in the future.